On July 8, 2001, Col Gaurav Dutta, posted in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kupwara district on the Line of Control (LoC) for Operation Rakshak stepped on a non-metallic mine.
The impact of the explosion blew his left leg off from the ankle.
In an interview with Manorama, he recalls the horror, “The head of the tibia was broken, and there was bone marrow bleeding.”
The officer, then 32, had to cut off a part the heel that was left hanging with the skin with a shaving blade borrowed from another soldier.
Cut to 2018.
Col Gaurav Dutta has completed 12 triathlons. With a 750-meter swim, 20-km cycling and a 5-km run, covering Pune, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Thonnur, Chennai, Delhi and Goa, all with his grit, determination and a blade for a left leg.
Dutta was born in 1969 to Lt Col M D Sharma (Retd) and his wife, Meena. After completing his higher secondary schooling in Secunderabad, he graduated from Meerut College.
Speaking to Manorama, he says, “Since my birth, I have seen the Army around me. We were in Jamnagar during the 1971 Indo-Pak War, and I was just three years old. I remember my mother picking me up and running for the trenches when the air raid sirens were sounded. The training area was very near to our house, and I would watch the soldiers go through the various training activities. Dad took us to see the sports events at the unit level. I guess the Army got into my DNA.”
His determination and passion for serving the country helped him join the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun in 1990. A year later, the young army officer was commissioned to his father’s unit, 7th Bn, The Brigade of the Guards.
From Operation Rakshak 1 in Punjab to Operation Vijay, Dutta was a part of several insurgency operations by the brigade.
On July 8, 2001, the army officer’s battalion received information of terrorist movement in their area.
“Being a mountainous region crisscrossed with nullahs and jungles, it was impossible to keep it under control. As a result, the tactically-sited ambush had to be placed on certain routes of infiltration. I was doing a recce for the best possible place for an ambush,” the Colonel said.
To find the best area to execute the operation, alongside his team, the officer trudged down a mountain stream for 75 metres.
“We got back on the ground, but I accidentally stepped on the mine. After it exploded, I ordered the rest of the column to halt and return to the bridge from where we had started. I took the support of my rifle and my buddy to cross the 75 metres in the same stream,” he recalls.
Apart from his left leg, the incident affected his hearing ability too. Moreover, travelling to the base hospital took another 12 hours which led to a heavy loss of blood, which also affected his memory.
The repercussions hit him when the officer couldn’t appear for the Defence Services Staff College exam because he couldn’t remember anything.
“My commanding officer tried to coach me personally but, it didn’t work. Things have improved since then,” he told Manorama.
As per protocol, he moved to the Pune for further treatment. When the doctors attached a limb to his amputated left leg and told him he would be able to walk in a few months, the army man had a different goal in mind.
I want to run again, he declared.
He underwent a second surgery where the surgeons had to cut off a few more inches off his leg for an artificial limb. This would ensure that he could run the same way as he did earlier.
“It took me time to get to terms with a completely different lower left leg, but eventually I started gliding through terrain the same way I did prior to the incident in 2001.”
He spent ten months at the Command Hospital. This was a low point in his life. But a meeting with late Captain Bikramjeet Singh Bajwa raised his spirits.
Dutta had been involved in athletics from a young age. Apart from participating in the Junior National Rowing Championships in 1985 and 86, he also captained his battalion in hockey, football, basketball, handball, and swimming.
The power of sports helped him turn his life around, bounce back and resume winning.
The army man moved on to represent India in the 2009 International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation World Games where he won a bronze medal in golf.
It was 13 years after the injury that he started running again. First, a 5,000 m run in Hyderabad in 2014.
After this, there was no looking back.
Around the same time, he attempted the triathlon and made headlines as India’s only para-triathlete.
But this is not where his story ends. He has helped para-athletes won national and international medals.
Recovering from a life-altering injury can life-altering. But Dutta signs off with a strong message in an HT interview, “Disability is only what one makes out of it. It poses hurdles and changes one’s life, but in no way, it makes a person weak. Accept it, have faith in your own abilities and overcome it.”
On this 70th celebration of Army Day, we salute the dedication and valour of this army hero along with those who relentlessly fight to safeguard our borders.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)